“The Baker in Me:” How Bread Challenges the Way I See the World

It started as a joke among friends. We could justify any absurd decision — more water, higher mixing speed, different shaping technique — as long as “the baker in me” found it appropriate. If “the baker in me” thinks we should bake the bread at 1000ºF, it must be the right move. Now that I have completed this program, however, I have noticed that “the baker in me,” has become more of a reality than just a comic expression. After living and breathing bread for nearly two months, here are some of the ways my inner baker has changed the way I do things:

I always bring something back from the other room.

There are no wasted steps in the kitchen. We are fortunate to work in a spacious lab environment, but are reminded of the fast-paced, cramped reality of commercial kitchens. To make every step count, if you bring something to one end of the room, for example, then you find something while you are there that needs to brought back to where you came from. One never walks with empty hands.

This has really benefited my home life considering I’m usually the kind of person that walks into a room, forgets why I came there in the first place, and then leaves. Eventually I remember and have to go back. That’s double inefficiency, and it doesn’t fly with my new inner baker.

The Bread Lab

I think in the present, near-future, and future-future.

If you are going to bring something back from the other room then you have to be thinking a little ahead. My mind is focusing on the task at hand, while visualizing what happens in 15 minutes, and an hour and 15 minutes from now. I’m looking around the room for what’s going to happen next. I’m listening for an oven timer. (Well at least when I set one. Otherwise I’m trying my hardest to tune out all the extra ringing.)

I remember how stressed I felt in the first weeks of trying to really understand what comes next, and tomorrow, and the day after, so that I can be in control of my schedule. My mind now feels oddly divided as it focuses on different timelines simultaneously. (More in a “project management” than a “parallel universe sci-fi” kind of way). It could take awhile to internalize this mindset, but the baker in me is starting to bring out this new perspective.

I really taste.

Warm bread fresh out of the oven is always delicious. It’s welcoming and comforting in a way that the actual taste doesn’t seem to matter that much. Apart from waiting for it to cool, we also have to learn to distinguish the nuances among loaves of bread. In a real-life bakery, we would only sell one or two kinds of baguettes or sourdough, so the customer would not be comparing many loaves side-by-side. As a part of our scientific bread experiments, however, we compare incredibly similar breads to understand the subtle differences in flavor, texture, etc. Our trials will ultimately help determine which breads will make the cut when we return to our communities.

The baker in me can now taste bread from the supermarket or a restaurant and tell (within reason) what kinds of flour(s) and yeast(s) were used, through which techniques it was mixed, retarded (refrigerated), baked, and maybe even how long ago it came out of the oven.

The baker in me has made me a bread snob. Food ideologies are real, and I am biased against certain mixing techniques and ingredient choices. I now have a hard time eating commercial bread, and sometimes wish my inner baker never came along and spoiled my blissful acceptance of all kinds of gluten.

All in a day’s work

I tell stories that don’t make sense to non-bakers.

When I tell my friends and family about my week, I do my best to take out the baking-specific details. Most stories begin: “So I was trying to select the right water temperature for our Poolish when Colin comes over and tells me that Justine scaled four kilograms of water instead of 1.5 and now there’s soup in Mixer 2.”

This story, like many stories I tell, is funny because of a miscommunication that resulted in a simple mistake and hilarious mess. Really anytime we accidentally destroy a batch of bread is hilarious (you’d be surprised how many ways there are), it’s just the jargon that gets in the way. But hey, I guess acronyms and jargon are what come with any specialized industry.

When there’s soup in Mixer 2

I say “yes, and…”

One of the best pieces of life advice I had been given well before baking school was to “change your ‘buts’ to ‘ands.’” A “but” often negates whatever comes before it, even when you don’t intend to, where an “and” is easier build upon.

“I see your point, but…” probably makes it seem like you don’t see their point at all.

“I see your point, and…” still allows you to take the original point into account.

It’s a subtle difference that allows for more constructive communication. A baking friend reminded me that “Yes, and…” is also the first rule of improvisational comedy (and teamwork). You can’t say “no” in improv — you always have to accept what has been offered, and then build from there.

Baking bread is fairly straightforward after a while. The day-to-day challenges mostly come from working with other people to troubleshoot challenges. Being in a scholastic environment, we work primarily as a team and discuss many decisions as a group. Everyone has their own “baker in me,” and I find our conversations are the most constructive when every baker can say “yes” to the other ideas on the table, and then build on them from there. Our team also makes a lot of mistakes, so I try to be accepting of what’s been done (even when it’s less than ideal) and be willing to move forward with a sense of humor.

When you’ve accidentally made soup in Mixer 2, figuring out how to fix it might as well be improv comedy.

I still have so much to learn.

The baker in me is young, and while he has changed the way I see the world, we (me + Inner Baker) also have a lot to learn together. We need to learn how to let mistakes happen. In our grand production schedule of “now, near-future, and future-future,” I am only beginning to understand the steps that require precision and the others that allow more leeway. I find it exhausting and unnecessary to ensure each and every detail is perfect, so I’d like my inner baker to start having some discretion on where to focus our attention to detail. What can I learn to let go of (just a little)?

Similarly, I also need to understand that at the end of the day, it is just bread. How can I treat every loaf as if it’s my only child, without the stress that comes with that mentality? If the worst thing that happens in my day is burning a pile of flour and water, then that’s a pretty good occupational problem to have.

And I wouldn’t be in this business if I truly believed it were “just bread.” Bread has the power to make people happy. It holds histories of entire cultures and traditions. It nourishes communities and is essential to important meals and gatherings. Bread is an experience that I get to craft and share. It holds a connection to an entire economy and food chain. It is a profession, a craft, an art and a science. It is the epitome of making something from nothing, of invention, of tradition.

The baker in me is a bread snob. I know that most people are not ruminating on the complexities and social issues of our favorite carb, and I know that this is something that Inner Baker and I care very deeply about. And for this reason, baking will never be as simple as “just bread.”

Croissant class begins this week. More to come.

This post is part of “Notes on Bread” — an ongoing story about my life in baking. Stay tuned for posts from baking school, and sign up for Knead to Know for occasional stories and updates via email.